Thursday, 6 February 2014

Virtual Learning Environments: how can we make the most of their potential?

A virtual learning environment (or VLE) is a web-based platform, designed to support teachers in the management of educational courses. It can serve to support online, blended or even primarily classroom-based instruction. Some, like Blackboard, cost money to use or lease, whereas others  (e.g. Moodle or Edmodo) are open-source and so free at the point of use (although there remains a charge to host a Moodle site). You often find them being used in higher education.

In this post, I'll be looking principally at two widely-used open-source solutions: Moodle - which is used extensively here at Warwick University - and Edmodo, which today hosts much of the activity on EVO2014's excellent "Business English Trainers" online course that I'm currently participating in.

Relevance and Rationale
VLEs serve to bring several synchronous and asynchronous communication tools "under one roof". Such platforms can help educators pull together blogs, wikis, forums, chats and even sites hosting content in an efficient, easy-to-use and visually appealing manner. 

Of course, it is up to the institution or teacher to create material to populate the VLE, which starts off as an empty vessel. Teachers may upload Word documents and PowerPoint/Prezi presentations to the site, create online quizzes, provide links to relevant websites, or import streaming video or audio files. Alternatively, in some situations, an institution may instead buy publisher-created digital content which a teacher may be free to customize to the requirements of a specific course.

At its simplest, a VLE is a delivery system for documents and other information, which may reduce learners' reliance on print-outs and make it much easier for students to pick up material, deliver exercises and find out information about the course electronically. However, one may actually go considerably further than this and use a VLE to develop quite sophisticated courses. As Pete Sharma and Barney Barrett point out in their excellent book Blended Learning: using technology in and beyond the language classroom (Macmillan Education, 2007), it is quite possible to mark placement tests automatically, group projects using synchronous and asynchronous communication, and introduce web quests and many other teaching approaches applicable to a blended-learning environment without needing any programming knowledge.

From a learner's perspective, the fact that a VLE permits them to access (or re-access) material at a time to suit them is a clear benefit, and there is evidence to suggest that this positively affects student performance. To give but one example, sample essays can greatly aid students on EAP courses or working towards an IELTS examination.

The potential for course content to be re-used is a big plus for teachers, who may for example later combine it with other content for different learning purposes. If teachers design content with re-use in mind, a VLE can help teachers increase their flexibility and productivity.

The enhanced security offered by a VLE is another attractive feature, which will go quite some way towards reassuring parents of minors and companies concerned about the use of internal material during corporate courses.

Propensity to foster language learning
Moodle is used extensively by Warwick University, and it certainly seems to help students get themselves organized. Course information is readily accessible there from the start of term, a certain amount of recommended scanned reading is also posted, and some lecturers additionally make use of wikis to encourage discussion outside of class. Work is handed in and returned using Tabula, a different system, but the two tools complement each other quite well. I'd say Moodle helps makes the learning process at Warwick more efficient.

Meanwhile, an Edmodo classroom has been used by the IATEFL BESIG online team as its VLE for its EVO2014 online course involving c. 200 students from around the world. It has been instructive to see the 5-week course unfold: besides being offered two Adobe Connect webinars a week, the tasks for the week are posted on a wiki, and participants are asked to post their responses in the appropriate place on Edmodo. It's a large class, but the BESIG team is very organized and the moderators generally respond within a day to everyone. Participants are free to read and/or comment on each other's contributions, and this has led to some very interesting exchanges of ideas and sometimes more!

In my previous job, I did make intermittent use of the institution's VLE (a tool called Coospace) in ways that went beyond simply sharing texts and setting/marking work. I made class announcements on noticeboards, posted videos and other content that supported what we were doing in class, and even on one occasion got one class to use a private "blog" feature instead of writing an essay for my eyes only.

Overall, I'd say VLEs can extend possibilities for interaction considerably. International collaboration becomes easier, and even within the confines of a single institution, one can extend students' opportunities to communicate in their L2 or provide flipped instruction by posting videos online and thereby create space for more communicative practice in class.

Moreover, the possibilities extend beyond simply students posting homework online, as Lizzie Pinard suggests in a  recent post. Used in the right way, tools such as Edmodo can be used in ways which encourage students to take ownership of their own learning and become more autonomous of their teacher.

In one sense, it is hard to imagine a "blank canvas" of a VLE as limiting teachers or learners! There are so many ways it can be put to good use. But I nevertheless feel one caveat is in order, in situations where face-to-face instruction is presumed to be the basic mode of instruction.

First and foremost, students in such classes need to regard the VLE and content posted there as an integral part of the course they are studying for. If they see it as somehow separate from classroom instruction or inessential, problems will occur. Indicating from the start that you mean to integrate the online space with your teaching can certainly help, but if this is not the norm where you work, there may still be issues.

Therefore, I'd say the institutional culture needs to support, or better still, champion VLE use. Management needs to show it is interested in how VLEs are being used to improve student learning outcomes, else less-than-intrinsically motivated teachers and learners will be reluctant to make much use of them. Fortunately, Moodle is treated with considerable seriousness here at Warwick, and the existence of a Technology Enhanced Learning Forum is a very encouraging sign.

To sum up: VLE adoption doesn't just happen, it needs to be nurtured. I'm very grateful to be studying now at an institution where this is clearly the case.

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